WICHITA — Pained words of Pastor William Vann inside Iasis Christian Center competed against industrial clamor of electric transmission line crews operating heavy trucks in the front yard.

Timing of the mid-April intrusion was ironic, because Vann was in a meeting with a Wichita City Council member, a Kansas House member, several local residents and a reporter to discuss the controversial power-pole modernization project initiated by Westar Energy — now known as Evergy — in a low-income residential neighborhood of northeast Wichita.

The church stands amid dozens of metal transmission poles that soar 105 feet above the ground, dwarfing wood poles typical of older neighborhoods without buried lines. Size and location of the double-deck poles fueled anger among residents convinced such giants would never be deployed in an affluent part of the city. Some were planted in front yards a stone's throw from entrance doors.

Vann wasn't alone in accusing Westar of engaging in a bait-and-switch approach to placing the poles on private property. He agreed to a new pole in front of the church, but was unaware of actual dimensions. He was recently informed Westar intended to add a transformer in the easement next to the street.

"I was approached ... a year and a half ago about Westar buying some easement of our church property in order to upgrade the power grid," Vann said. "They did tell me it would be a silver pole. I was not aware how tall it would be or that they would actually bring two more poles along with it. Now, in my 150-foot span of property, I have one, two, three, four, five — five poles out there, because they haven't taken the old ones down either."

Vann was joined on the Capitol Insider podcast by Democratic state Rep. Gail Finney, Wichita City Council member Brandon Johnson and Helen Abdul-Raheem, who runs a nearby child care facility. All four live or work in the pole zone and have been part of a potent backlash against this first phase of Westar's transmission-line upgrade started in 2018.

 

Johnson said Westar declined his plea to consider reasonable alternatives, such as relying on smaller wood poles and altering routes to place them on public land closer to a highway. Abdul-Raheem said the 105-footers were such an eyesore it discouraged her from sitting on the front porch.

And, Finney said, the influx of massive transmission poles were directly responsible for falling residential property values.

"The chances are, if you were to have an opportunity to buy a house, you probably wouldn't want to buy a house with a 105-foot pole in your yard," the state legislator said. "As far as property values, recently our appraisal values came out from the county. My property is 5 blocks over and my house is only 9 years old. It went down $5,000 since last year."

The Westar project wasn't subjected to rigorous oversight by the Wichita City Council, Sedgwick County Commission or Kansas Corporation Commission. That prompted Finney to introduce during the 2019 legislative session a bill, so far blocked by Republican lawmakers and Westar lobbyists, requiring utility companies to go through a permit process handled by the KCC.

"If they truly care, as they say, if they recognize the mistake, as they continue to say, then stop opposing this bill that would stop it in the future. Stop opposing this bill and let it pass. Then, we know you're genuine about it," Johnson said.

Johnson said both phases of the Westar initiative fell in his council district, but that didn't translate into leverage to curtail the company's aggressive use of private property during the first round.

"Poles went up and, since that point, I've consistently heard from the community in that area and outside of how upset people are. I've not found one person happy about this," he said.

Westar representatives had moved through the neighborhood a couple years ago buying easements. They apparently paid a few hundred dollars to a couple thousand dollars to homeowners.

"They actually gave me a little piece of money for a wooden pole," said Abdul-Raheem, a resident and child care provider. "The next thing I know, I have one of these big, huge things on the property. It looked like a monster. When I open my curtain in the morning, that's the first thing that I see. I didn't even want to work in my flower bed this morning."

Westar spokeswoman Gina Penzig said in an interview the company recognized "we should have done better" with Phase 1 of the transmission project. She said engineers would redesign Phase 2 to make use of smaller poles comprised of wood.

Greater use of public easements should reduce the future power-pole footprint on residential property, she said. The next part of the project, she said, would be introduced during late summer or early fall public meetings to gather community input.

"Westar Energy has been part of Wichita for more than 100 years. We want to be a good neighbor," Penzig said.

The company also created a $1 million fund with the Wichita Community Foundation and a $250,000 scholarship fund in recognition of criticism of the project by Wichita residents.

Willis Dewberry, a Mossman Street homeowner who ended up with one of the massive Westar metal poles in his front yard, said he'd never heard about the new community fund. He expressed skepticism it would alter quality of life in his "black, poor neighborhood."

Dewberry said he remained bitter that anyone who balked at Westar's plan learned about the company's willingness to use eminent domain.

"We went to court. Lost," he said. "The property value went down."

Finney said there was no way to sugar coat Westar's decision to move ahead with a project anchored by 105-foot-tall poles that would never have found their way into an area populated with wealthy people.

"It was easy pickings for them, in my opinion, and they didn't really give it much thought," the state representative said. "If this had been a much nicer, more affluent neighborhood, they would have thought about it, and came up with a plan and maybe had a discussion on alternative routes."

Vann, the pastor at the Christian Center, had a modest proposition for Westar: "At the bare minimum, if you're going to put a pole in my yard, can I at least paint it?"